Plant Science Careers in Space Biology

Plant Science Careers in Space Biology

Recorded Thursday, April 9, 2020

About This Webinar

Plant science careers in the space program. Really?

For many plant biologists, the concept of working for NASA or contributing to space exploration might be rather unexpected. However, career opportunities in space biology are expanding, and these jobs can be exciting venues in which biologists can both do research and expand the appreciation of plants. In this webinar, you will have the chance to hear from scientists who have made their careers in space biology, and you will have the chance to ask them questions about their journeys. 

As a participant In this webinar, you will:

  • Meet six people working in space-related biology, each of whom has taken a different career path; identify the various mechanisms via which a career develops its character
  • Gain an appreciation for space biology as an interesting and impactful career path
  • Develop insights into the kinds of plant biology research that NASA and space exploration programs are interested in
  • Increase your understanding of the roles of plants in extraterrestrial exploration life support

This webinar is freely available thanks to the support of the American Society of Plant Biologists. Join Today.


Anna-Lisa Paul, PhD 

Dr. Anna-Lisa Paul is a Research Professor in the Department of Horticultural Sciences and the Director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Biotechnology Research (ICBR) at the University of Florida. Paul’s experimental heritage is the study of plant gene expression in response to environmental change, with emphasis on spaceflight and planetary analog habitats. She and her colleague Robert Ferl have launched and analyzed ten spaceflight experiments, which primarily explored the effects of the spaceflight environment on the patterns of gene expression and signal transduction in the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana. Terrestrial research in planetary exploration analogs includes work in research stations in Antarctica (Neumayer III) and in the high Canadian Arctic (the Haughton Mars Project). Her current research is focused on evaluating the epigenetic responses of Arabidopsis to the spaceflight environment and on utilizing suborbital launch vehicles to explore the effect of the transition to space on aspects of gravity signal transduction. Paul has served the space research community as the President of the American Society for Gravitational and Space Research, as the Editor in Chief of the journal Gravitational and Space Research, as a member of the ISS Standing Review Board, and on NASA’s GeneLab Science Council. She is currently a member of the Suborbital Applications Research Group. In 2015 Paul was a co-recipient of NASA’s Award for Most Compelling Science on the International Space Station, and in 2019 she received the NASA Medal of Honor for Exceptional Scientific Achievement. She is a Fellow of the American Society for Gravitational and Space Research.  

Gioia Massa, PhD 

Dr. Gioia Massa is a NASA scientist at Kennedy Space Center working on space crop production for the International Space Station and future exploration endeavors. She led the science team for the Veggie hardware validation on the space station, and she heads an interdisciplinary group to study fertilizer and light impacts on the nutrition and flavor of Veggie-grown crops. In addition to Veggie, she helps with science needs for other space station hardware and works with external PIs to get their science to function on station. She is also involved with education and outreach programs related to plants in space. Massa has a BS in Plant Science from Cornell, a PhD in Plant Biology from Penn State, and postdoctoral research from Purdue and the Kennedy Space Center. 

 Raymond Wheeler, PhD

Dr. Ray Wheeler is a plant physiologist and senior scientist at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, where he leads the ALS research group. This includes controlled environment studies and vertical farming with crops for food and oxygen production, CO2 removal, and wastewater processing. Over the years, Wheeler has studied plant responses to gravity, CO2, light, atmospheric pressure, and hydroponic crop cultivation. Wheeler has been co-investigator for several spaceflight experiments, including the first test to demonstrate potato tuber development in space, and studies using the Veggie plant growth chamber on the International Space Station to grow fresh vegetables for the astronauts. Ray is the author or co-author of more than 260 scientific research papers and has presented 30 international invited talks. He has received NASA’s Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal, the USDA/ARS B.Y. Morrison Distinguished Lecturer Award, the American Society for Gravitation and Space Research Founder’s Award, the AIAA Jeffries Award for Aerospace Medicine and Life Science Research, and served as the Vice-Chair for the Life Sciences Commission of COSPAR, the International Committee on Space Research. 

Howard Levine, PhD

Dr. Howard G. Levine is the Chief Scientist for NASA’s ISS Research Office at Kennedy Space Center (KSC). His primary responsibilities include functioning as NASA Project Scientist for the life science spaceflight experiments managed out of KSC and chairing KSC’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee. His MS research centered on various aspects of shellfish aquaculture, and his PhD dissertation was on the use of seaweeds for environmental monitoring. After graduation, he was hired by the Marine Biomass project at SUNY Stony Brook, where he was actively involved in fieldwork that ultimately deployed a kelp farm in Long Island Sound, and managed a greenhouse facility designed for the cultivation of seaweeds. Later, Levine became associated with Abraham D. Krikorian in the Dept. of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at SUNY Stony Brook and the early CHROMEX spaceflight experiments that employed NASA’s Plant Growth Unit during missions STS-29, STS-41, and STS-51. He subsequently became a member of the Life Sciences Contract at KSC where he was a Senior Research Scientist and supervisor for the Project Science Coordinator group. His efforts primarily centered on: (1) the development of procedures for the growth of plants in space, (2) interacting with outside Principal Investigators involved in spaceflight experiments, and (3) mentoring undergraduate students in KSC’s Space and Life Sciences Training Program (SLSTP). In 2004 Levine was hired by NASA. He has participated in over 80 spaceflight experiments either as a PI, a science team member or in a project management capacity. Levine has extensive parabolic flight experience and over 70 space-related publications that include results from both plant (Arabidopsis, Wheat, Flax, Soybean, Corn, Daylily, Haplopappus, Ceratophyllum) and animal (Sea Urchins, Mice) research, as well as hardware and protocol development efforts.

Andrew Schuerger, PhD

Dr. Andrew C. Schuerger received his BS (1979) and MS (1981) degrees from the University of Arizona and his PhD (1991) from the University of Florida studying microbiology and plant pathology. His research interests have closely paralleled NASA’s Advanced Life Support (ALS) and Astrobiology programs, in which he has published numerous papers on plant-pathogen interactions in semi-closed plant growing systems, the survival of terrestrial microorganisms under Martian conditions, and microbial ecology of human missions to Mars.  In 1997 Schuerger joined the Dynamac Corporation (a NASA contractor at the Kennedy Space Center, FL specializing in environmental and life sciences) to pursue research on the remote sensing of plant stress, Mars astrobiology, and ALS plant pathology issues. In 2003, Schuerger joined the Dept. of Plant Pathology at the University of Florida as a Research Assistant Professor to continue his Mars astrobiology and ALS research activities. 

His current research efforts include (1) studying the effects of martian conditions on the survival, growth, and adaptation of terrestrial microorganisms; (2) investigating the UV-photolytic generation and destruction processes of methane on Mars, a potential biosignature molecule in the Martian atmosphere; (3) developing a dust collection system called DART (Dust Atmospheric Recovery Technology) to recover plant and human pathogens in African dust plumes that annually hit FL, and (4) characterizing the development of plant pathogens in bioregenerative ALS systems. 


Rob Ferl, PhD

Dr. Rob Ferl is a Distinguished Professor at the University of Florida. His experimental heritage is the study of gene expression in response to environmental change, and recently that environment has been spaceflight and extraterrestrial habitats. Rob co-chairs the Committee on Biological and Physical Sciences in Space for the National Academies of Science, and he is a past president of the American Society for Gravitational and Space Research. Among his honors are the 2016 NASA Medal of Honor for Exceptional Scientific Achievement, the 2016 AIAA Jeffries Aerospace Medicine and Life Sciences Research Award, and recognition as a Fellow of the AAAS. Although a dedicated lab geek, he enjoys and advocates for the experiential aspects of science – he and his lab members have flown with their experiments on many parabolic flights and other research aircraft to study aspects of the microgravity environment and develop flight hardware for understanding the biological effects of spaceflight. 

This webinar is freely available thanks to the support of the American Society of Plant Biologists. Join Today.

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Q: To Andrew Schuerger: Is there any research on the evolution of microbes under a non-gravity environment? Do you see any changes in mutation rates? 

A: There are several studies done on microbial evolution in the microgravity environment. Use Google Scholar for a quick search of the published papers. Keywords: (1) microbial evolution in space, (2) microbial adaptation to space, etc. -Andrew Schuerger

Q: I’m interested in the space life sciences training that Gioia mentioned. Is that training still available? How to apply for that? Thanks!

A: The Space Life Sciences training program is no longer at Kennedy Space Center (KSC), but this program is going on at Ames Research Center. At KSC our plant research group has internship opportunities for U.S. undergraduate and graduate students every semester. Go to to find out about these opportunities. -Gioia Massa 

Q: To Andrew Schuerger: Is there any research that you did or planning to do on soil microbes and their adaptation to martian soils? Could these microbes be a way to enrich space soils in nutrients and make the space soil more available for plant growth?

A: Yes, do a Google Scholar search with my name….that should get you started. -Andrew Schuerger

Q: Are there any opportunities for foreign undergraduates in NASA? I am a current Agricultural Biotechnology from PH, and I am very interested in further studying space plant biology however, opportunities are very scarce in our country. 

A: Unfortunately, NASA internships are only open to US citizens. Laboratories that have NASA-funded grants at universities and in industry may have opportunities open to foreign nationals. NASA postdoctoral fellowships are open to foreign nationals as well. -Gioia Massa 

Q: Do you think that heavy metals could be a problem in space soils? Are you only working with the ground from the Earth or have you tried with soil from other asteroids/planets? 

A: The biggest problem on Mars if the in situ regolith were to be used is the presence of high salts (#1 problem), oxidants (#2 problem), and heavy metals (present but scattered. -Andrew Schuerger

Q: Is the selection of plants to be studied in space environment based on their resistance to abiotic stresses, knowledge based on previous genetic studies (wild relatives, inbred lines)? In addition, how gravity signaling can be studied on Earth? I wonder how you can simulate the microgravity conditions on Earth? Has any research been done on effect of magnetic field on plant development? What is the experience on that side?

A: Opportunistic pathogens are likely the primary group of future disease-causing agents in space. And thus, we need to investigate how plant resistance to these kinds of microbes in space is a critical area of future research. -Andrew Schuerger

Q: To Andrew Schuerger: The 31 bacterial species which are able to grow in 7 mbar, 0 degree etc. so are they have any similarities with any plant pathogens at earth?

A: Excellent question. Most aggressive pathogens that would be found in a typical Ag system will likely not occur in space BLSS modules. They can be eliminated by a good IPM program. But the general airborne microbes can be “opportunistic pathogens in space-based BLSS units. -Andrew Schuerger

Q: To Andrew Schuerger: cont. to earlier question (31 species), Do they create any pathogenic activity or symbiotic activity or not do anything in space situation? 

A: This has not been studied yet. Low-pressure microbiology is in its infancy. I think maybe 6 papers have been published to date. But this is an important question related to exploring Mars. -Andrew Schuerger

Q; Very interesting about microbes. Do we know if Rhizobia survive in space? Do legumes nodulate in space? I am a graduate student studying symbiotic nitrogen fixation

A: There have been a few experiments in space on the growth of Rhizobia spp. and how they colonize plant roots. But there is A LOT more to study. This is an important field. -Andrew Schuerger

Q: What are some of the plant species with the most potential to be grown sustainably in space? What are the main concerns about the plants’ health in space?

A: Look primarily at food crops. Those are the focus for Bioregenerative Life Support Systems. -Andrew Schuerger

Q: Are all plants that are used in experiments in space in sterile media/environments, or are there microbial communities that are safe and/or indispensable for growth in closed environments?

A: In all Bioregenerative Life Support System….they are cleaned thoroughly before launch, but then become colonized what the bacteria, fungi, algae, etc. that are present in the human habitats. The BLSS systems then become supportive of complex microbial communities very quickly. -Andrew Schuerger

Q: Do we have a sense of how exposure to radiation during transit and on a different planet surface will affect plant seed stocks and stability of traits.

A: Not yet…research is required in this area. -Andrew Schuerger

Q: Question for everyone: I am a graduate student in Canada, focusing on soil microbial communities. My interest is in the potential for microbial life on other planetary bodies. Is there a career potential for microbial space research and as a Canadian, is there a potential to work with NASA?

A: To date, there are no “smoking gun” evidence that life exists on other planets. But most astrobiologists think it is possible to discover a new lineage of life on Mars, Europa, or Enceladus. And that is my opinion too. But to discover these other forms of experience, we need graduate students, post-docs, professors, and industrial partners to study how to detect life. -Andrew Schuerger

Q: My question is about the long term flight in space. Are we going to frozen stock while long term flight and revive them when we reach to the destination such as another solar system or planet.

A: For our life-times (till 2100), there will only be travel to the Moon, Mars, and maybe the asteroid belt. Thus, flights to another start system is a LONG way off. But to your question, seed and tissue culture plants are likely to be stored not in a frozen state, but in a cold temperature refrigerator for the trip to the destination. Freezing can damage seeds. Storage at 4 C is better.-Andrew Schuerger

Q: To Andrew Schuerger: Would we need to bring earth’s soil in order to grow plants in Mars, or could we use Martian soil? 

A: No, the Martian regolith is rich in all nutrients except nitrogen and phosphorus. These nutrients will have to be brought from Earth. -Andrew Schuerger

Q: Is there ongoing research into medicinal plants (such as Catharanthus roseus) in space?

A: There is a small amount of research in this area that I am aware of at Langston University. This hasn’t been a major focus, but it is an area with a lot of potentials.,One problem to send humans to Mars is the degradation of stored vitamins over time. Thus, phyto-medicine plants in space is a really good way to “grow” your vitamins during the mission. – Gioia Massa, Andrew Schuerger

Q: Probably more for the NASA folks: Can you speak about the funding projections for the field, and if any other agencies are pushing the space biology effort?

A: We anticipate that the funding for this area will remain steady or increase slightly in the future. There probably won’t be any big changes, good or bad., Believe it not, algae could be a real problem in space because their spores are floating around everywhere. And the biggest problem with algae is that wherever there is water and nutrients (i.e., hydroponic systems), they will increase. Controlling algae blooms in space BLSS modules is a good research topic. -Andrew Schuerger 

Q: Many of the space biology projects mentioned were on the experimental scale. As we transition toward growing plants on the lunar/Martian surface, is there a focus on the scale-up of these experiments to provide more of the astronauts’ nutritional requirements during missions?

A: The scale-up problem is real, but down the road a bit. The first plant production systems for the next 10 years or so will be smaller-scale “garden lettuce and dwarf tomato” scale projects. -Andrew Schuerger 

Q: Question on your answer on microbes dying on martian UV, we can evolve rhizobacteria for higher UV dose. I agree it will be more ethical to apply that on martian soil. Do you think it is possible?

A; Remember, all Rhizobia released on Mars will not be into the open terrain. The use of releasing Rhizobia is to enhance the N-cycling within the human habitat. Thus, those soil-based systems will be protected from solar UV. -Andrew Schuerger 

Q: which benefits of plants are of the highest priority, or likelihood of incorporation, in space mission architecture in the near to mid term — food, clean water, gas exchange, behavioral health support?

A: Food is the highest priority right now as this is the only thing we cannot do with alternate means. This is considered a high risk for Mars as the packaged diet degrades over time and vitamins break down. So we are looking at plants as a way to provide these critical nutrients. -Gioia Massa 

Q: Are there opportunities to get internships for graduate students related to Space Biology research? 

A: Yes, NASA has NSTGRO fellowships, and NASA Fellowships that are available for graduate students, and this type of research can be conducted with those. -Gioia Massa 

Q: How plants can be breed in the space that developed into a robust technology for feeding global hunger?

A: Plants that might do well in space under the stresses associated with spaceflight may also do well in certain environments on Earth. Water stress is a big concern in microgravity as water behaves strangely and water and air do not mix well, so getting the correct ratio of water and oxygen in the root zone is hard, and this might be something that can be targetted. These types of plants may do well in flood or drought situations on Earth. Plants optimized for high yields in compact controlled environments may also be suitable for growing in Controlled environments on Earth. -Gioia Massa 

Q: Question for everyone: In the movie ‘The Martian’, Matt Damon has degrees in both Botany and Mechanical Engineering. Do you think it’s necessary to be multifaceted in this sense to be successful in plant space research, to be an astronaut, or is it not appropriate?

A: Yes! If you would like to be an astronaut traveling to Mars, it is essential to have multiple tasks.-Andrew Schuerger 

Q: Do transgenic plants have a place in plant space research? Since not every country agrees on consuming them, I would assume this would cause hesitation?

A: Yes, transgenic plants have been used in spaceflight research quite a bit! – Anna-Lisa Paul

Q: Many of you mentioned your works relating to plant gene expression. I was wondering, do you see the capabilities of current plant gene expression studies expanding in such a way that they become more commonplace? 

A: Lots of work on this front, and much – if not all – translatable to crop research and insight. Look on like for pawers by Rob Ferl and me, but may others as well. – Anna-Lisa Paul

Q: Dear Dr. Schuerger, I was fascinated with your study about the effects of martian condition on microorganisms. I would like to know what would be the difference you could expect between simulated and real mars conditions? 

A: Simple Question…with complex answers. Go to Google Scholar and enter my name “Andrew C. Schuerger” and you will get dozens of papers that you can download. In essence, UV irradiation is very strong on Mars, and all microbes will be killed off if exposed to solar UV on Mars. But then if the microbes are shielded from solar UV, they can survive. -Andrew Schuerger 

Q: What could be the difficulties in growing plants on the moon?

A: Factors such as partial gravity, dust, micrometeorite impacts, and deep space radiation may provide challenges for both humans and plants on the moon. -Gioia Massa 

Q: Can students join KSC as an intern for 6 months?

: Internship opportunities are generally 14-16 weeks in the spring and fall semesters and 10 weeks in the summer semester. There are occasionally opportunities to have repeating internships. -Gioia Massa 

Q: Does the development of spaceflight hardware impose severe limitations on the conduct of space plant biology experiments? 

A: There are going to be mass, volume, power, and crew time limitations for any experiments conducted in space, as all of those are limited resources. Cold stowage (fridges and freezers) are also very limited. Plant experiments are no exception, and our hardware can only grow certain types of plants that are certain sizes, though we work to make most experiments possible. -Gioia Massa 

Q: Is there a particular set of skills that are increasing in value to NASA (e.g. Plant breeding, quantitative genomics, bioinformatics, plant pathology, statistical analysis)?

A: I would list the plant biology skills as: (1) horticulture, plant physiology, botany; (2) plant molecular biology; (3) plant ag engineering; (4) plant pathology; etc. from there. -Andrew Schuerger

Q: Is there more potential for hydroponics or amended Mars regolith to be the medium of choice for a Mars colony?

A: This is one of the most important questions out there. Hydroponics can give much higher yields than soil-based crop production, but you have to have relatively pure salts and buffers to get hydroponics to work. The use of Mars regolith as a growing medium is filled with uncertainties right now, but soils have the key advantage as you do need to bring those nutrients with you (except N and P). -Andrew Schuerger 

Q: Do plants on the ISS ever end up with mite problems?

A: This has not yet occurred. -Andrew Schuerger

Q: Is the air available for plants in space experiments sterile?

A: No. All human habitats have naturally occurring microbial communities present that helps to stabilize the ecosystem. That said, scientist do try to keep the plants and hydroponic systems free of microbes that will ruin their experiments. Remember, microbes are mostly our friends in ecosystems. -Andrew Schuerger 

Q: We all know that funding for space programs is tremendous; however, is funding for ‘plant biology in space’ better than plain old plant biology?

A: The funding for plant biology is getting better year-by-year. The next 5-10 years should be good. -Andrew Schuerger 

Q: Do you look at the Epigenetic factors involved in growth and development in space? Any specific crops?

A: Short answer is yes. Rob GFerl and I had an epigenomic experiment on the ISS a couple of years ago (see this paper: Zhou M, Sng NJ, LeFrois CE, Paul A-L, Ferl RJ. (2019). Epigenomics in an extraterrestrial environment: organ-specific alteration of DNA methylation and gene expression elicited by spaceflight in Arabidopsis thaliana. BMC genomics, 20: 205) the bottom line is that we found differential patterns of DNA methylation in spaceflight, which could also be correlated with differential gene expression. – Anna-Lisa Paul

Q: I have a simple question regarding Plant Growth- How does plant response insect attack in the space environment, I am trying to understand the insect -plant relationship 

A: To my knowledge, there have been no insect/plant interaction studies conducted on the space station. But some insects are likely to get into the systems by hitching hiking on humans. This is a critical area of research where data is required. Andrew Schuerger 

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